By James V. D’Ambrosio

Volunteers play vital roles in nonprofits — answering phones, providing administrative support, sending out mailings, assisting at special events, writing grants, and more. They deserve the same level of professionalism and respect you would extend to paid staff. This takes on greater importance when you consider that many fledgling nonprofits rely almost entirely on volunteers until funding is secured and, in this challenging economy, more nonprofits are likely to rely on volunteers to control costs.

A recent news article bears this out. In the June 24 edition of Long Island Business News, a feature focusing on the economic challenges facing nonprofits — “Marriages of Convenience: More Nonprofits are Considering Mergers and Other Collaborations” — reports that “Recruiting more volunteers has been a focus for some [nonprofits].” It is reported that Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares Inc. — The Harry Chapin Food Bank, recently saw a significant increase in volunteers after a full-time employee was assigned as volunteer coordinator.

One critical area of volunteer management is recruiting and placement — matching interests and aptitudes with appropriate roles in your organization. There should be a formal interview process, including a resume, reference checks, discussion of past experience, and requisite skills and abilities (at a large agency a volunteer coordinator might do this; at smaller agencies it will likely be the executive director). Also try to ascertain motivation: Are they retired and want to give back? A student looking to gain experience? Someone passionate about your mission for personal reasons? A job-seeker hoping to eventually be hired as a paid staffer? Armed with this information, you can now see where they might fit in. 

Another area of importance is how you view their work. Try looking at it from their perspective: freely giving their time and talent that could be used in many other ways, even at another nonprofit! So make sure their experience is positive. One way to do this is providing recognition: If your agency has many volunteers, consider holding an annual event recognizing their efforts; if you have just a few volunteers, recognize them in your newsletter, take them to lunch occasionally, and informally praise their efforts. Whatever you may do, it’s important they feel valued for their efforts and think well of your agency.

Conversely, the biggest mistake is taking volunteers for granted. Just because someone is enthusiastic, attends consistently and performs well doesn’t mean they’ll do it forever. So actively steward the relationship by a) asking what you can do to help; and b) telling them how their work contributes to your mission. Volunteers can be great ambassadors for your agency. Properly engaging them is time well spent.    


QUESTION TO READERS: How does your agency manage and recognize volunteers? What other thoughts do you have on the subject?

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